How Antler East Africa is building early-stage startups with expert founders

How one global early-stage VC is bringing the world's most brilliant and determined people together to create truly amazing businesses in Africa


There is a place where you meet professionals ideating, iterating and creating tech solutions based on problems observed and insights gathered during their many years of professional experience in different industries. A place where many aspiring tech innovators and founders get the help they need to build novel tech enterprises from scratch. A place reminiscent of Silicon Valley. But this is not in San Francisco, rather, this is the Silicon Savannah in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Silicon Savannah is worth more than $1 billion with more than 200 cutting-edge startups. Some of the most popular of these startups include BRCK (making internet more accessible), Cellulant (a digital payment platform), Sokowatch (provides access to essential goods and services), and Farmers Pride (leverages technology to offer a more efficient last mile marketplace platform to smallholder farmers). The hub is also a home away from home to global players such as Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Intel. However, the Silicon Savannah has not brought about the impact, or produced the number of successful businesses, that was initially expected. Some of the main problems cited for this include insufficient investment funding to keep up with the large number of, lack of necessary skills on the side of the developers, and most importantly, the need for the development of fresh business ideas by the existing incubators and business accelerators.

Antler East Africa

Antler, a global early-stage venture builder and venture capital firm, invests in the defining technology companies of tomorrow with a unique approach that goes beyond conventional accelerators and incubators. The firm has offices globally across most major entrepreneurial hubs, including London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, New York, Singapore, Sydney, and now in Nairobi.

Founded in Singapore in 2017, and launched in Africa in August 2019, Antler is on a mission to fundamentally improve the world by enabling and investing in the world's most exceptional people. It enables founders to build complementary co-founding teams, supports teams with deep business model validation, and provides a global platform for scaling businesses. To date, Antler has invested in and helped build over 250 companies. Of these companies, 40% have at least one female co-founder, and the founders represent 70+ nationalities. Antler's only office in Africa is in Nairobi and is currently run and led by women; two partners Melalite Ayenew and Marie Nielsen, Director Selam A. Kebede, Program Manager Joana Borges, and Analyst Ramya Saah.

"At Antler Nairobi, we are looking to back strong founders with deep knowledge in Africa and a passion to solve interesting problems across the continent. We also understand that building a highly scalable tech business from scratch is quite a challenge even for the most exceptional founders. Therefore, we are doubling down on our efforts to support the founders throughout their journey, from recruiting the right founders to join the cohorts, to helping them shape their business ideas, to making our pre-seed investments and, to continue to support them as they hit the ground running and start fund-raising from follow-on investors," Kebede tells IDG Connect.

Founded by serial entrepreneur Magnus Grimeland and a team of experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and company builders across the globe, the organisation employs a unique mixed model as an early-stage capital venture. In this way, it brings together exceptional professionals from various industries to help them build companies from scratch and funds them up from the earliest stages. At Antler Nairobi, these founders are given $1,000 per month for the first three months while the company invests $100,000 for a 20% equity on the ideas that qualify Antler’s investment criteria.

Kebede has worked for various VCs and entrepreneurship support organisations across multiple geographies and therefore understands the startups' ecosystem in East Africa and the continent. She also holds MSc Degree in Electrical & Communication Engineering from Aalto University, Finland. She tells us:

"We have a people-first approach. We identify and bring together the world's most exceptional people in our cohorts and invest from the pre-seed stage in the strongest co-founding teams and ideas that are built. Our process is very hands-on; by working with the co-founders over several months, we get the opportunity to help shape the business models and perform extensive due diligence before investing. The due diligence is supported by the global Antler platform where we pull upon our network of 400+ world-leading experts across technologies and industries."

What makes Antler different?

Every entrepreneur is happy with any company that emerges to support entrepreneurship. There are currently thousands of exciting business models that aim to help individuals start or scale businesses, and each is different, with its own angle. But according to Kebede, Antler is a place where experienced operators, great technologists, and experienced entrepreneurs meet to start their company. The organisation puts special emphasis on appealing to the broadest possible base of aspiring entrepreneurs, regardless of their gender, geography, ethnicity, education or cultural background, which in turn allows it to work with a very diverse group of founders.

Additionally, Antler builds and invests in a wide range of companies, from deep-tech to fast-growing B2B and B2C companies across all industry verticals. They are the first investor into their portfolio companies and also a partner supporting the startups over the long-term with further capital, network, advice, from their strong global community.

"Antler's vision is to help bring about businesses that help change the world for the better. By bringing the world's most brilliant and determined people together to create truly amazing businesses, we hope that Antler will help foster organizations that change the way people think, are sustainable and innovative as well as encourage other people to realize their own business goals. We also take responsible investing seriously," Kebede informs us.

But why Africa?

It is notable that despite working from Nairobi, the company has its eyes on the African market as a whole. The founders here work on Pan-African problems and solutions, and most, if not all, their portfolio companies aspire to eventually expand across the continent. The company has already attracted founders from more than 15 African countries to join its cohort in Kenya, instrumentally maintaining the outlook of its cohorts to also be organically Pan-African. Additionally, Antler is also exploring other parts of the continent as a potential next market to set up shop as Kebede acknowledges:

"As we all know, Africa is going through tremendous changes when it comes to innovation and technology. Just in the past year, we have witnessed exponential growth in the number of new startups that have raised private investment. There is also an increase in the quality of the solutions that are disrupting the continent for the better. We are therefore delighted to be part of this movement towards creating opportunities that can increasingly and positively impact the continent … making meaningful contributions to GDP and job growth in the region as well as empowering a diverse set of entrepreneurs."

The company has set a global target for 2025 where it will have nurtured 10,000+ entrepreneurs, have 1,000+ companies solving real problems in the world, contributed $30 billion to global GDP and created more than 100,000 jobs. This plan includes Africa, Kebede tells us:

"From the launch of our first cohort on August 5th 2019, to the third cohort that kicked off on September 2020, we have received more than 5,900 applications and accepted 100 founders from 24 nationalities. The average founder is 34 years of age and comes with 10.2 years of work experience. With these 100 founders, we have built 45+ business ideas that were pitched to our investment committee and we have made 10 investments to date."

Supporting women in entrepreneurship and leadership by example

Starting a company is difficult, especially so in Africa, and therefore requires new skillsets and a change of mindset. As a continent that is grappling with myriad of economic hardships, but with a young and well-educated population, Africa deserves increasing contribution from all of its citizens – most importantly – also from more women. They are integral to the economic growth of the continent not just as consumers but also as members of both formal and informal workforce, as entrepreneurs and innovators. Unfortunately, not enough opportunities and leadership positions are made available to African women and where they are available, women often do not enjoy the credit or fair income that they deserve for their contributions. This is embarrassing because research shows that companies with diverse representation perform better than those that do not.  

With women at the helm at Antler Nairobi, the company is leading by example, although the all-female leadership team wasn't specifically planned, as Kebede explains: "It was not intentional that our East Africa office is run by [all] women. However, we are delighted we can inspire other women and the ecosystem in general by running a successful venture capital firm that is traditionally run by men across the globe!" She adds, "30% of our companies have at least one female co-founder."

The COVID 19 challenge

Like all other businesses, Antler has had to deal with the challenges that Coronavirus has presented. However, the firm has taken stringent measures and employed existing and new technologies to cope. This is especially challenging taking into account that its second cohort in Africa was still in nascent stages at the onset of the virus. 

"We've moved more of our coaching, knowledge sharing, and meetings online, and hosted several cross-Antler events and seminars with a great turnout. We're also making local changes to the typical Antler setup to adjust for the restrictions arising from the pandemic," Kedebe tells us.

Between March and June 2020 alone (during country-wide lockdowns and curfews in Kenya), Antler had invested in 58 startups across seven countries and has since invested in more. The companies funded represent over twenty sectors, ranging from Fintech and deep tech to food delivery and gaming. This was made possible by pivoting their strategy:

"Our cohorts usually run 'in person', but given the circumstances, we quickly introduced virtual solutions and increased functionality on our digital hub for our founders. We also launched the 'COVID-19 Initiative', which will invest in a select number of startups that are working on ideas that respond to the impact of the pandemic. In just a few weeks, this initiative received over 2,000 applications”.